On March 11 at 2: 45 p.m. local time, a tremor shook Japan, acountry known for its experience in training and preparing forearthquakes and tsunami. Even so, the magnitude-9 earthquake, themost powerful in the country's history, wrought havoc.
The earthquake was not registered by the people in Taiwan,located around 2,200 km from Tokyo. By the time the people therelearned about the quake from television reports, a series of tsunamihad reached the northeastern coast of Japan, engulfing entire citiesand towns and sending waves to places as far away as the westerncoast of the United States.
In the hours after the quake hit, mounting reports of the damageand casualties in Japan jolted the world. While most Taiwanese stilldid not realize the extent of the disaster, one Taiwan-based charityand relief group had already moved to prepare for the worst.
"We have seen many disasters around the world. Right after Taiwanissued a tsunami warning, we mobilized and sent messages to ourmembers countrywide, as well as those in other countries in theregion, to remind them to take precautions," said Hsieh Ching-kuei ofthe Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation.
One hour after the quake struck, the non-profit, non-governmenthumanitarian organization had set up a relief command center at itsheadquarters in the eastern Taiwan county of Hualien.
Shortly after that, Master Cheng Yen, the Buddhist nun whoestablished the charity group in 1966, calmed shocked Tzu Chi membersat the foundation's Tokyo branch office in her soft voice in a videoconference. She also reminded them to stay safe and told them to helpthe people in Tokyo affected by the quake.
Although Tokyo is located more than 400 km from Sendai in MiyagiPrefecture on the northeastern coast -- the closest point in Japan tothe quake's epicenter -- the city experienced an intensity of 5 and aseries of aftershocks. Train and metro systems were shut down androads quickly became jammed.
Under instructions from the Hualien command center, the Tokyooffice opened its doors to commuters and travelers stranded becauseof the traffic chaos, offering them hot tea, shelter and assistancein finding their way home.
That day, "more than 500 people sought help from the office, "said Hsieh, director of Tzu Chi's Religious Culture and HumanitarianAid Department.
Meanwhile, the office and the Hualien headquarters carried out animmediate check on their inventories of relief materials to seewhether there were enough supplies to meet the possible demand, hetold the CNA.
"There is a tacit agreement among our members, " said the veteranTzu Chi member who has taken part in many international reliefmissions launched by the foundation, explaining how the organizationwas able to roll out its relief mission so quickly and efficiently.
"We don't have the kind of standard operating procedure that theRed Cross Society might have, but we have a set of methods that areformed based on our experience in international relief work, " hesaid.
"They include setting up a relief command center before beginningto coordinate manpower and material supplies, checking inventory andcontacting airlines to help with shipment of relief supplies, "Hsiehsaid.
"EVA Airways and China Airlines are two carriers with which wehave maintained good relations for a long time. They have always beenwilling to transport our supplies at short notice, " he said.
"We also always keep 17,000 blankets made from recycled PETbottles in storage, along with other emergency supplies, so that wecan kick off relief aid at any minute."
Tzu Chi, which started because of one nun's compassion for thepoor, has developed from a small group of just 30 supporters --housewives who saved pennies from their grocery money each day tohelp people living in poverty -- to an organization with nearly 10million volunteers and supporters in 50 countries.
On July 20, 2010, Tzu Chi was awarded by the Economic and SocialCouncil of the United Nations (ECOSOC) with "Special ConsultativeStatus" in recognition of its contributions in providing relief aidand medical services in 70 countries around the world, helping peoplebeset by disasters like the Southeast Asia tsunami, the Myanmarcyclone, and earthquakes in Turkey, Pakistan, China's SichuanProvince, Haiti and Chile.
With the status, Tzu Chi is entitled to taking part in ECOSOC andother related organizations' activities, presenting consultativeopinions and services to the U.N. and other NGOs.
Tzu Chi's dark blue-dressed volunteers are often seen among thefirst people to arrive at a disaster site to provide immediateassistance, which ranges from material aid to consolation tosuffering people.
They warm the disaster victims with their eco-friendly blanketsand feed them with hot meals if they have access to fresh water,Hsieh said.
On March 14, Tzu Chi shipped 5,000 blankets and hundreds of casesof instant rice and nuts to Japan. Two days later, its volunteersdrove from Tokyo to the quake-stricken town of Oarai in IbrarakiPrefecture, where they cooked and delivered hot meals of curry riceand miso soup to the disaster victims.
In the following days and weeks, more supplies were transportedto Tokyo and on March 25, the organization began distributing reliefsupplies to residents of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, two cities inIwate Prefecture -- another area that was hit hard. The suppliesincluded instant rice, blankets and shawls, winter underwear andready-to-eat nuts.
"With the blankets and instant rice, we can satisfy disastervictims' basic human needs for warmth and food right away, " Hsiehsaid, although he added that the organization has found that thesincere care offered by the volunteers comforts the victims evenmore.
The Tzu Chi volunteers appreciate every chance to engage in gooddeeds and they are thankful for any person who is willing to accepthelp, Hsieh explained. "That is Tzu Chi's volunteer attitude, " andthat is what motivates the group to swing into action in a matter ofminutes, he said.By Elizabeth HsuCNA staff writer/J